Photo By: MD Duran from Unsplash
In Ontario, children between the ages of six and 18 are required by law to attend school. For most, that means six hours a day, Monday to Friday, for ten months of the year. Kids are expected to learn new concepts and grasp fundamental skills that set them up to not only do well in future years of school, but to do well in life in general.
But how can we expect them to do that if they’re hungry?
According to the Breakfast Club of Canada, more than one million students went to school on an empty stomach before the COVID-19 pandemic. As students returned to school, the club indicated that the number might have doubled to two million.
Food is what fuels the human body, and that includes the brain. When we send kids into the classroom on an empty stomach for six hours a day, it’s like starting a road trip with an empty gas tank; short of a miracle, it’s guaranteed to fail.
Basic life skills like reading, writing, basic math, motor skills, and social skills are all developed through early education. If a student misses the boat on one of those skills because they were too hungry to concentrate then they’re not set up to be an engaged and productive member of society later in life.
With most elementary and high school students returning to in-person instruction, it’s worth thinking about how we handle food insecurity among children. Food insecurity in general is a problem, but in schools there is an opportunity to provide free, healthy meals in a safe and welcoming environment to a vulnerable population, so why not do it?
If, by law, children have to be in school then every single one of them should be entitled to two free meals, one before school and one at lunch, no questions asked.
Charities like the Breakfast Club of Canada do a tremendous service in trying to fight food insecurity. They provide healthy breakfasts for students in need, and that’s a good thing. The problem is everybody knows it’s a charity, and that includes kids. It can feel shameful to have to admit that you either can’t afford to, don’t have time to, or don’t have the ability to, feed your child breakfast in the morning. For children too, having to accept charity can be an embarrassment. That’s not to say that it should be, but it is the reality.
Providing breakfast and lunch to every student regardless of their financial situation removes some of that stigma. If everybody can have free lunch, then there’s no shame in it. When shame prevents children from accessing available support, that’s something we should be very concerned about fixing.
Charities can and do help address food insecurity, but if we really want to take it seriously, a government-funded program that provides breakfast and lunch to every student attending a public elementary or secondary school in Ontario is the best option.
Some people might say that the government shouldn’t have to pay for wealthy children to eat, and I can see why that argument might be appealing. However, consider that there’s not really such a thing as a wealthy child, only wealthy parents, who might send their kids to school hungry for reasons entirely unrelated to money. There’s no way to guarantee that a child receives a filling and nutritious breakfast before school unless you give it to them.
Additionally, kids are smarter than you might think. A government-funded program that only provides assistance to families who make under a certain amount of money annually once again opens them up to stigma. Kids are observant and they can be pretty mean and judgemental, they’ll notice if the free lunches only go to the “poor kids”. Once again, this stigma may prevent children and families from accessing the support that is available.
When kids go to school, they shouldn’t have to be hungry, and more than that, they shouldn’t have to be embarrassed to be fed.